Friday, June 29, 2012

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2009: A Gentlemen's Review

Their expressions pretty much sum it up, yeah.

Pull in close.  Warm your feet by the fire. Fancy a cuppa? We're going to take some time to explore the latest installment of comic book legend Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 2009.  It's penciled by the fantastic Kevin O'Neill (of Marshall Law fame) and co-published by wunderkind publishers Top Shelf Productions and Knockabout Comics.  

The first thing to note before we delve into it is that this is in many ways a more sparse presentation than previous installments, owing in part (no doubt) to the fact that present day copyrights impinge on Moore's possibilities with literary cultural collage, one of his major strengths and a backbone of the series as a whole, since the initial premise is, after all, drawing from stables of established figures in various canons and re-imagining them in a world where they all live side by side.  Moore, of course, is fully aware of this limitation, and plays with it like a pro, but more of that in a moment.  

We arrive in this fictional parallel to our not-too-distant past with none of the orgiastic fanfare of previous explorations.  Orlando, the gender-switching immortal with three millennia under his/her belt, is a traumatized soldier in parallel reality Iraq (Q'Mar), set to receive a medal and a ride home after snapping and slaughtering not just insurgents, but also his fellow soldiers, all nearby civilians, and a dog.  Upon returning to the abandoned hideout of the League, the wizard Prospero orders her (gender-switch in the shower) to find Mina Harker and stop the Antichrist and his forthcoming "traditional Apocalypse", formulated by Crowley manque Oliver Haddo. 

Pause a moment and examine the litany of curse words that the Prime Minister's "Fixer" streams in the background on the telly while Prospero chews Orlando out.  Where is that convolution of Moore wit we've grown accustomed to?  That overwrought double and sometimes triple entendre hidden behind layers of homage and nostalgia?   Hiding under a thin layer of disgust with current trends of banality within the mediasphere, old son.  He makes very little effort to disguise it. 

A throwback to previous installments ties up certain plotlines dedicated readers might have lost track of.  The MI5 propaganda institution gives wry references to the James Bonds of times gone past (can you spot them?) and the Coote Institute (descendant of Volume 1's girl's school, directly referencing randy what-the-butler-saw-and-what-have-you's of Britain's erotic serial The Pearl) dovetailing with the Gallywag-oriented backup story and poor Mina's dementia. 
Grant Morrison's King in Yellow Mobius Strip Tease seems tame by comparison.

Clamor on through the small references to popular culture that manifest as vague asides throughout the streets of London as Orlando and Mina attempt to piece together their team (adventurer Alan Quartermain has degenerated into a heroin-addicted bum and coward) and the location/nature of the Antichrist.

Is that the current incarnation of The Doctor strolling through King's Cross with the first one? Surely not.  Orlando and Mina consult with Norton, the Prisoner of London, who directs them to a hidden train platform, gore-streaked and corpse-filled, hearkening, of course indirectly, to Harry Potter's magical train station leading to Hogwarts.  When Mina and Orlando take the train to the (decimated) "Invisible College"  an interesting point is made.  In the midst of theories about the relation/reflection of this blasted dreamscape to the real world, Orlando relates the magical school massacre they're traipsing through the aftermath of to the school shootings in America.  And suddenly, in a series where only the Prisoner of London got to make cryptic crossword comments relating to the "real world" while everything else related to a literary looking glass, we have a direct reference to our reality.  The parallels to fiction's inter-relatedness to fact has often been a point Moore engaged (notably in the wonderful series Promethea) but here we can feel his point bearing down with a certain bitter gravitas.  Flashbacks from the point of view of the Antichrist have Oliver Haddo look us (him) in the face and call him (us) a banal disappointment.
The AntiChrist has no sense of Feng Shui.

On first assessment, one could call this latest (last?) installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the least fulfilling of the lot, yet Moore's covered even that base with the framework of the storyline as a whole.  Modern society, the banal Antichristing fly-harangued redundancy that it is, has become a dreary mess with little to no sense of purpose. The bustling over-populated chaos bustle of previously explored centuries and their dirty alleyways has been replaced with austere camera-lined bland streets (the spirit of this age embodied early on in the story with a passing glance over an album cover titled "Oh, Who Cares?").  Not even the eternally present black cat of previous League episodes can be found.  The fornicating faeries are all dead. The Blazing World has receded, and our only fully male hero of the series is an opiate addicted sot until the final act.  Even our villain, the petulant Antichrist (scarred, exploited, nameless) is little more than a grubby wanker with an eyeball problem. Yes, he's pretty much Harry Potter, if you want to be puerile about it. And yes, Harry Potter is pretty much Tim Hunter. And Tim Hunter is the oldest son of artist John Bolton, as much as Orlando is Roland. And so on.

There is texture, even in the sparseness allowed in this work.  At the climax we're given a curious confrontation between the Poppinsesque "final goddess" and the Antichrist. We're given a dozen tiny "in-jokes" (as opposed to the hundreds of Volume Two) and we are given a few hints of potential foreshadowing (including a potentially disastrous "Moriarty-sperm-repopulated moonman war" hint hidden at the end).  Is this the final step for the series, or just this volume?  Whatever the case, it's been a hall of floor-to-ceiling looking glasses, and it has reflected the arc of our own world's disintegration with the aplomb we have come to expect from Alan Moore.

If a forthcoming fourth volume is yet to be had, I'd welcome it.  The territory is still ripe, even if the content has to shift considerably.  The trip has been an interesting one, to say the least, and if it were to crack open a wider portal and bridge that rift between what is real and "not-real" then we would all be well-served.

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